Between Two Kings

Preaching, Theology

There’s something I want to say about the sermon below, which I preached at St. David’s this morning. A major theme of this sermon is the kind of selflessness life in Christ calls us into, which is related to the Christian virtue of humility. Many authors, such as Roberta Bondi, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Rita Nakashima Brock, and Sarah Coakley have noted the ways that values of humility and selflessness have contributed to violence against and the subordination of women and minority populations. This is a very important theme for me, and I try to include it explicitly in my preaching often. Today’s was a sermon which dealt with themes of humility and selflessness without explicitly referencing this dynamic, hence this brief introduction and reading list.

When someone had the idea to affix a sign above the crucified body of Jesus of Nazareth reading, “King of the Jews,” they were likely thinking in part, at least, ironically, of Herod. Herod the Great was the first major King of the Jews leading into the common era, and he might as well have crucified himself for all the lengths he went through to establish and secure his own power. For anyone looking up at the tortured body of a peasant-rabbi labeled mockingly as “King,” the tyranny of this earlier king would have been fresh in their minds. Herod’s family had converted to Judaism along with the rest of Idumea when their territory came under Jewish rule. Herod would spend the rest of his life trying to convince himself and others of his own Jewishness. He invented elaborate genealogies in order to connect his own birth to that of other royal Jewish greats. He also killed members of his own family, including one of his own wives, for the sake of personal political security. Judea was under Roman control at the time, and Herod was someone who knew how to jockey the system for all it was worth. When local political dynamics shifted he held groveling audiences with the Roman senate. He executed rival cousins. He donated lavish sums of money to memorial building projects for the sake of promoting his own barely Jewish name. He planted hidden surveillance to spy on his people to assess their opinion of him, and he suppressed public protest which brought his tactics into question. He knew how to commodify the labor of the people he was meant to rule into a resource that personally benefited him. Herod, as King of the Jews, was the epitome of a king of the world. By the standards of accumulation of wealth and security, he was a great success. He died with both hands firmly gripping the reins of his life, his people, and his power.

Jesus, however, died with both hands open to a world that was hurting him. Jesus lived his life by giving power away to other people. Jesus entrusted his own family narrative and good news to a group of bumbling fisherfolk. Jesus ascribed the power of his healing to the faith of the wounded whom he healed. When Jesus had bread he gave it away. Having a body, he gave that away, too. He gave it to the wild proclamation of true authority, subverting religion and politics to a God who favored the poor and lonely and had the power to recreate them in an image of wholeness. He gave his body to be close to folks who stank, folks who fought, folks who frequently questioned his crazy ideas and folks who would ultimately betray him. In Jesus, God appeared in a form we are always eager to recognize in the world: namely, ourselves; only to gradually undress himself piece by piece from each vestment of power and security and success which we’ve come to find so seductive, as if to say with the final disrobement, “See? There’s nothing here.” On the cross he hung the last of it beneath a sign that read “King”, with every step of the path which led to that point a contradiction of the word.

No wonder, then, that the first Christians imagined this tale of two kings stretching all the way back to their beloved’s childhood. Of course Herod was afraid. Everything he did spoke of fear. The greatest fear he had was losing the power of his position, and so receiving reports of a Messianic birth somewhere in his tightly controlled kingdom would hit square in the middle of his rawest insecurities. He responds with tyrannical violence. God responds by becoming a border-crossing refugee. As in the Resurrection, God passes death, even as others around him perish. Four hundred years later, Pope Leo would look on this scene from Matthew and reflect on the limits of Herod’s scope. “Thou art troubled, Herod, without cause,” he said, “Thy nature cannot contain Christ, nor is the Lord of the world content with the narrow bounds of thy dominion. He, whom thou would not have reign in Judaea, reigns everywhere.” For Leo, Herod misses the point. God is not coming to supercede Herod’s kingdom, that is far too small a thing. God is coming to disarm coercive power itself.

We can easily recognize the signs of this dynamic in our world today: massacres, ruthless grabs for power, maniacal defensiveness. But they appear only because the conflict resides within each one of us. The violent offenses of a terrified, coercive ego against the subtle generosity of a deeper, naked Self is as real a battle as any two kings might have fought in times past. We may well be afraid of the things God has seemed to come to take away from us. Comforts at our neighbor’s expense. Surety at our own power to save. Self-righteousness, self-aggrandizement, self-indulgence. What tyrannical extremes have we gone through to evade the coming of this selfless God? What have we been clinging to? Where have we missed the grand vision in being focused on our own small concern? Somewhere amid the clenching fists of this violence, God is slipping free, traveling onward to a fearless land of deathless freedom. If we follow, we may find our own hands eased into opening as broadly as his own, stretched out to a hurting world, eager for the weight of fear to be lifted from tired shoulders once and for all.

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